Steve Smith Interview

Learning From the Greatest


In part 2 of The Psychology Of Drumming, Steve Smith reveals how he got through the toughest point in his career:

What inspired you to start playing the drums?
I first became interested because I liked the sound of marching bands. I can remember as a kid being at a parade and hearing the drums go by and I found that very exciting. That was probably the first thing and then after that I heard a recording with Gene Krupa, it was a Benny Goodman recording with Gene Krupa playing Sing, Sing, Sing. Those things together made me very interested in drumming.

What were your main goals as a kid learning his craft?
I had the good fortune of having a good instructor from the beginning. His name was Billy Flanagan. He was a very good local teacher from the Boston area. He wasn’t a well-known drummer but in 1963 it was common to have a lot of good teachers around the US that had grown up playing jazz and they were teaching in that style. My teacher, when I went to him, was in his sixties during the sixties, which meant during the thirties and forties he was performing with big bands in the area. He taught me in the swing style, he wasn’t a be-bop drummer, he was a swing drummer and so my goals were focused on accomplishing my weekly lesson. I got initiated into the concept of the master and the apprentice. He really was a mentor type figure as well as a teacher and his teaching was done in such a way that I was inspired to do a good job in my lessons so that he was proud of me.

What was the turning point in your career?
There’s no black and white answer for that. There was no turning point in my career. For me, it was a step by step process that started with developing my foundations and then going to the Berklee College of Music which was good on a number of levels, of course educationally, but also for connections, meeting people and networking. Through Berklee I met a bass player named Jeff Berlin and we played together a lot in Boston. In 1976 he was able to recommend me for an audition with Jean-Luc Ponty, which I got the gig and toured and recorded with him.

That was a transition from playing mostly around Boston and the East coast area to touring around the world but nothing happened overnight. Everything was based on one step in front of the other and being prepared for the opportunities that came my way. I had never heard Jean-Luc’s music and I found out about the audition two days before it happened. I just had enough time to get my schedule organized and drive from Boston to New York City. But I was prepared for that audition with all the training that I had up until that point. Jean-Luc was looking for someone who could learn music quickly, which had to do with sight-reading – Jean-Luc put a lot of charts in front of me, which I was able to read easily. I think he auditioned a total of about 20 drummers and most of them could not read. That was their problem because if you can’t read you can’t learn music instantly. He needed someone who could come on the gig and literally play the gig a couple of days later. My reading ability helped a lot so I had the ability to take advantage of that opportunity that came my way.

When I toured with Jean-Luc, and later with Ronnie Montrose, the guys in Journey heard me play and that led to me being asked to play with Journey. Another opportunity came up when I happened to be doing a clinic with Peter Erskine and Lenny White in 1986. Peter told me that he had just left Steps Ahead, Lenny said he knew all about it because they had just called him to take his place but he couldn’t do it. I said to Lenny “I’m available and I’d love to do it” and literally the next day I got a call from both Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri and they asked me to join Steps Ahead.

You have to network but you have to be able to step-up and deliver the goods when the opportunities come your way.

What’s been the toughest point in your career?
There’s been times when I was fired from gigs because, lets say I had the ability to get my foot in the door, but wasn’t living up to the expectations that people had. In that process I’d go through a lot of reassessment and then address my weak points and make them strong points. That’s a situation that happens to a lot of musicians. Psychologically you can’t let that get you down. You have to use those situations as learning opportunities, not to develop attitudes about people, but to develop a perspective of your strengths and weaknesses. At those times I did a lot of deep analysis of my playing and tried to be as objective as possible. I’ve tried to address my weaknesses and really work hard to develop them into strengths. Over the years I’ve been let go for not having good time, not being able to play with a click track, not being a real asset as a guy on the road that has a good attitude, you know any number of things which I’ve learned from and developed my playing and developed my personality to be easy to work with and professional as a musician on tour and in the studio.

So much of the psychology of being a successful musician over the long term has to do with being able to deal with being scrutinized and critiqued, criticized and fired, taking that information in, and then doing your own analysis to try to decipher what it is that you need to work on. Then doing the work and making the changes. That’s critical because everybody is going to be faced with different challenges and how we deal them is what sets us apart. There’s a world of difference between someone who gets discouraged and gives up along the way or someone who perseveres and is able to not only deal with those situations but to thrive in them as well – To overcome your feelings of inadequacy and your feelings of depression and work through to the point that you develop strengths out of what somebody pointed out as your weakness.

Do you have any good advice for young musicians who are trying to make it?
The first and foremost thing is to become the best musician you can be because that is your product – your own personal musicianship. That means being a good independent musician rather than only being a member of a band. I never ascribed to the idea that the way to be successful in the music business is as a member of a band, although I did have the opportunity to do that with Journey. I took advantage of that opportunity when the offer came my way, but when it was over I had lots of options of what to do next. I’ve always had my goals on being the best musician that I could be and then working on having a long-term career in music. I think those goals never go out of style. What I’m trying to say is, that if somebody has the goal of becoming a great musician and develops their musical skills then they have a good shot at having a lifetime career in music. There is always work for a truly good drummer. That’s really a different path from putting all of your goals into joining a band and trying to “make it” in a band.

So that’s my advice – prepare to be a good musician. Learn about music, learn how to read music, learn how to play the keyboard so you have an understanding of music and harmony. Develop your musicianship to the highest degree possible and then you have a shot at having a career that lasts a lifetime. That, to me, is the goal. If you look at the “band drummers” that were working during the peak of the Journey success around 1980-1985, where are they now? The only other one who is popular and still working is Kenny Aronoff, who was playing with John Mellencamp at that time. Kenny is still around because he had the musical background and the ability to survive and thrive as an individual musician after the band success faded. There are really no other “band drummers” who have maintained long-term personal careers in music. Their music careers are completely tied to the career of the band. That sounds dreadful to me but my goal was never to be in a successful band. I made the most of the opportunity when it came my way but it was never my goal. I’m accomplishing my goal, which is to be a good musician that has a lifetime of playing opportunities. I think that that’s a pretty universal approach and that’s my best advice for young musicians.

Interview taken from The Psychology Of Drumming.

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